“Man With the Steel Whip”
By the early ‘50s the Republic cliffhanger department had just about enough steam left in it to power an electric pencil sharpener. It had all been done before and done with better budgets, scripts, superior directors, actors with more enthusiasm, plus inventive and ingenious cliffhangers. Left as the new decade rolled around was just the dredges, re-tooled, overly familiar yarns patched together with clips from earlier serials that could usually be detected in an instant by fans of the form. The pacing was tired, the directing was by the numbers and the bad guys were usually reduced to a single top dog villain and two incompetent flunkeys to do his bidding. Universal and the independents had bailed on this genre early on but Republic and Columbia held on for a few extra and mostly unproductive years with the latter producing the final American cliffhanger in ‘56.
“The Man With the Steel Whip”was Republic’s final western. It was also the studio’s last foray into the Zorro legend, a sub-genre they had exploited for years in many varied re-tellings even when the copyrighted moniker of the masked man was no longer theirs for the taking. In ‘51 they released “Don Daredevil Rides Again” (the title having no relation to any earlier production featuring the main character) starring Ken Curtis as a masked avenger of the old west. It relied on lots of old footage from earlier Zorro outings but was fairly enjoyable mostly due to Curtis’ likeability in the lead role. “Man With The Steel Whip”, made three years later, explored basically the same familiar terrain but was down several notches as far as entertainment value goes.
The plot has our hero assuming the masked identity of El Latigo who regional Indian legend has it had once been a friend and protector of the local tribe now under suspicion of conducting raids on white settlers. El Latigo is actually Jerry Randall (Richard Simmons) who suspects there is something sinister at the root of these attacks, and he is right. A shady businessman, Barnett (Mauritz Hugo), is the brains behind this violence, his plan in utilizing a few renegade Indians and his own men, is to chase the peaceful tribe away and take over their land which he knows to be the site of a large gold deposit.
There’s nothing drastically wrong with this serial. Franklin Adreon does a serviceable job of directing and Ronald Davidson’s script is acceptable with a few interesting touches even though it is still highly derivative. There is considerable older footage—from serials like “Zorro’s Black Whip” and “Daredevils of the West”—integrated into the action, some of it not terribly noticeable, the rest sticking out like Godzilla in a wading pool. The real problem, as with so many chapterplays of this late date, is that it simply plows a celluloid landscape already so over furrowed as to be almost unwatchable.
The cast is solid but you can tell their hearts aren’t in the thing. It was a quick paycheck and nothing more. Richard Simmons, only a few years away from gaining national fame portraying the lead character in TV’s “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”,goes through the motions in the dual role but lacks conviction. Barbara Bestar is pretty and adds some feistiness as schoolteacher Nancy Copper but doesn’t have a great deal to do except in one chapter conclusion where she dons El Latigo’s masked duds to confuse the bad guys but curiously leaves on her skirt. Speaking of the bad guys, Mauritz Hugo was always effectively slimy when wearing the black hat and is assisted by stuntman/actor Dale Van Sickel in a larger role than he was usually accustomed to as second banana bad guy Crane. The ubiquitous Lane Bradford sports pig tails for his role of the larcenous redskin Tosco—and looks rather silly in doing so—and such other familiar faces as Edmund Cobb, Stuart Randall, I, Stanford Jolley and Tom Steele are also along for the ride. In addition Pat Hogan, who would show up the same year as Red Stick on “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” with Fess Parker, appears here as the unnamed chief of the unnamed Indian tribe—which seems about as formidable as the Hekawis on TV’s “F Troop”—while Republic staple Roy Barcroft for once is on the side of the law as the grumpy sheriff.
There are a lot better serials than “Man with the Steel Whip” but there are a lot worse ones as well. The greatest mistake this one makes is that it is simply and painfully bland. The writing on the wall for the death of the serial was larger and more obvious than any skywriting that ever filled the air and everyone knew it. But there were a few tired gasps left. This was one of them.
All right, I confess. Despite Kane Richmond, Buster Crabbe, Frank Coghlan Jr., and Charlies King and
During the ‘25-‘29 era Miller was one of Hollywood’s top paid serial stars and he died at age 48 in 1940, two days after a strenuous fight scene for Gene Autry’s “Gaucho Serenade”. According to one source he holds the record for lead parts in serials: 26 out of 30 cliffhangers from ‘25 to ‘39. He learned stunt work as part of his experience in serials, working with Joe Bonomo, Cliff Lyons, Yakima Canutt and Richard Talmadge. An article on Walter Miller in BIG REEL (July ‘95) says these five actors formed a stunt team and earned good money doing yeoman service doubling for “countless leading men and women.”
But it is Miller’s sound serial performances that will be discussed here. His entry into talkies came with Mascot’s “King of the Kongo” (‘29), which was released in two versions, silent and part talkie (making it, I believe, the first talkie serial). In it, Miller plays Larry Trent, an American who joins the Secret Service to investigate the disappearance and possible death of his brother, an agent who had been investigating a band of thieves in the jungles of the Congo. They’re led by someone called the King of the Kongo who uses a giant gorilla to aid in his crimes. My tape of this serial is silent, with a few subtitles. There are long scenes of people talking and unless you’re a lip reader it’s impossible to know what they’re talking about. The talkie version of this serial was originally recorded on discs that played along with the film. The discs have long since vanished. So it’s difficult to judge Miller’s performance. Although he’s the serial’s hero, Jaqueline Logan gets just as much screen time. Boris Karloff and Larry Steers (the bad guys) also have sizable parts. Miller looks good, battling bad guys, lions and hostile natives with vigor, but the serial isn’t much to write home about.
His second sound serial was “The Lone Defender”, in which he was billed right behind canine superstar Rin-Tin-Tin. He really shines in this one, providing a winning performance as Ramon, who’s suspected of being the notorious Cactus Kid. He wears a wide-brimmed Mexican hat, a serape, adopts an amusing Mexican accent, helps June Marlow and Buzz Barton bring evil Lee Shumway to justice and wins June’s heart by the final fadeout. Miller is charming and dashing, offering a hint of why he was so popular in the ‘20s. “Who are you anyway?” asks Shumway, before being led away by the police in the final chapter. “Mebee a poor vaquero,” Miller replies in his stereotypical Mexican accent, “mebee a bad man. But not-a the Cactus Keed. Not a-Ramon,” then in perfect American, “but Marco Roberto of the United States Department of Justice.”
His next was “King of the Wild” (‘31 Mascot) in which he plays Robert Grant, an American equipment salesman in the kingdom of Rampur who discovers he looks exactly like the ruling Rajah (Miller in a double role). Taking an immediate liking to him, the Rajah buys a lot of machinery from Grant, introduces him to Tom Santschi, a big-game hunter, and takes him on a tiger hunt. During the hunt the Rajah is attacked by a tiger. A shot from Miller’s rifle scares the cat off, but the Rajah has been mortally wounded. He urges Miller to assume his identity until his brother, the legitimate heir to the throne, arrives. At all costs, his cousin Prince Dakka (Mischa Auer, who makes the most of a small part) must not know of his death, or he will try to seize power. But Dakka does find out (Miller is betrayed by Santschi) and accuses Miller of murdering the Rajah. Miller is forced to flee. Assuming the guise and the accent of an Arab, he becomes a valued aide to a desert sheik who protects him from pursuing police. Eventually, he leaves to see if he can clear his name, has a few adventures, meets the untrustworthy Mustapha (Boris Karloff), adopts a few disguises and winds up on a ship loaded with oddball characters: brother and sister Carroll Nye and Nora Lane—he’s discovered a field of huge diamonds and a lot of people are trying to take it away from him; Santschi is on board, and has a cabin he shares with Cyril McLaglen, a semi-wild ape man who has the habit of crunching the bones of anyone he gets his hands on. Santschi is the only one who can control him. Then there’s Victor Potel, another animal trapper-seller, who acts suspiciously; the seductive widow, Dorothy Christy, an adventuress who thinks she killed Nye and is trying to flee; and Otto Hoffman, a little old lady who claims to be a secret agent but who is unwigged at the end to reveal her/his real identity (in what is the only serial I know of to feature a transvestite as a major character). The serial is fairly fast-paced, features a variety of locations and is a lot of fun. Miller is convincing as he goes through his paces, adapting a mid-Eastern accent and wearing either a burnoose or turban for most of the film. Though there’s little swash in his buckle, he does a few of his own stunts and proves he’s a trooper when he’s held in space in an elephant’s trunk for a lengthy scene. No faking. It’s a real elephant.
His next two serials, “Danger Island” (‘31 Mascot) and “Galloping Ghost” (‘31 Mascot), had Miller as a bad guy menacing Kenneth Harlan and Red Grange, respectively. Why the switch to bad guys? Probably because it suited Mascot. Given a choice, I’m sure Miller would have preferred being the hero. “Danger Island” is one of the lost serials (Universal supposedly has it in its vaults, but I wonder) so it’s impossible to judge his performance. Still, I’d bet Miller was better leading-man material than Harlan.
In his next, “Shadow of the Eagle” (‘32 Mascot), he played second fiddle to John Wayne, at first a possible badguy suspect but who turns out to be okay. Miller is competent, but the role is not a major one.
“Last of the Mohicans” (‘32 Mascot) marked Miller’s swan song as a serial romantic leading man. He’s Major Duncan Heyward, cutting a dashing figure in his white wig and period military uniform, as he endlessly strives to rescue the two Monroe sisters, particularly Alice (Lucile Browne), from the clutches of the evil Magua (Bob Kortman) and his Hurons, in this familiar and oft filmed story. Miller certainly seems ardent enough. “Tell Alice I love her,” he says to Cora, as he goes to walk the gauntlet set up by ax-wielding Hurons. He’s involved in a fair share of action and heroics, but is still a supporting player to the real lead, the always-wonderful Harry Carey. (Although, in my opinion, Kortman steals the show.)
His next serial was “Gordon of Ghost City” (‘33 Universal) playing bad guy Rance Radigan to Buck Jones’ good guy Gordon. He’s enjoyable as a villain who’s working as foreman for the rancher he’s stealing cattle from, but this is very much Jones’ serial. Universal must have liked the Jones-Miller pairing, because once again he’s the main villain in Jones’ next serial, “The Red Rider”. As Jim Breen, Miller makes a play for heroine Marion Shilling (and is rejected) then commits various acts of murder and smuggling before getting his just desserts. (These western serials prove Miller was an excellent rider.) By now Miller had been typecast as a villain.
In “Pirate Treasure” (‘34 Universal) he’s Stanley Brassett, a crooked lawyer who’s determined to steal a treasure from Richard Talmadge. There are the usual troublesome natives looking to burn people at the stake, big-cat attacks and some nice stunts by Talmadge in this just-average entry.
He’s a bad guy again in “Tailspin Tommy” (‘34 Universal), but not the lead villain. He plays pilot Bruce Hoyt, whose main task is to sabotage the efforts of Three Point Airlines for his secret boss, John Davidson, who has an airline of his own and doesn’t want competition. Miller’s physical presence seems to dominate the scenes he’s in. He just looks bigger than the other leads, Maurice Murphy and Grant Withers. Withers, who plays famous air ace Milt Howe, appears puny compared to Miller. (Their roles could have justifiably been reversed.) Still, he’s fun to watch as he makes a play for heroine Betty Lou (Patricia Farr)—who parachutes out of Miller’s plane rather than give him a kiss—or weasels his way out of incriminating situations. When he sees Betty Lou has discovered the cleanly-snipped ends of a rudder wire he claimed had snapped during a refueling flight, he goes to Tommy and confesses. “You know, when I dropped down and left you hanging from the hose, well, I lost my nerve. I was afraid to go back and try to pick you up, so to square myself I snipped one of the control wires with a pair of pliers.” Tommy tells him he understands and, “I think a lot more of you for telling me about it.” In the end Miller gets his when the concussion from a bomb he’s dropped causes him to lose control of his plane, which crashes into a building and explodes spectacularly. Not a bad exit.
His next serial was “The Vanishing Shadow” (‘34 Universal). Miller is Wade Barnett, an unscrupulous tycoon who wants the controlling stock of a newspaper owned by Onslow Stevens, whose father Barnett has driven to death. In this one Miller accomplishes something rare in serials—he creates a villain who is more than one dimensional. For one thing, his daughter, Ada Ince, has denounced his ruthless business techniques and allied herself with Stevens. Miller, sporting short white hair, a Chesterfield coat, and a cigar clenched in his mouth, looks every inch the steely-eyed magnate. The first shot of him, as his chauffeur-driven limousine pulls alongside Stevens’ car and he stares daggers at Stevens, establishes their enmity. But as determined as he is to get the stock by any means, including murder, he is at the same time worried about his daughter, and gives orders she is not to be hurt. At one point, when his henchmen, in their zeal to kill Stevens believe (mistakenly) they’ve killed Ada too, and report it to him, he is visibly shaken, and gets wobbly. As much as I enjoy him, I must admit Miller isn’t a great actor. He’s always competent, but rarely more. When he learns of Ada’s supposed death, he puts his fist to his forehead to show grief, a technique that had gone out of style with early silent films. But still, his ambivalent feelings come across, and at times he’s a sympathetic figure. He’s even given an honorable way out. When one of his henchmen, Richard Cramer, gets ambitious and tries to take over, Barnett traps him by calling in the police. Cramer shoots him and, dying in Ada’s arms, Miller apologizes for everything and tells his daughter he’s willed his vast fortune to her.
In “Rustlers of Red Dog” (‘35 Universal) he got the chance to play a hero, although a supporting one, a sidekick, along with Raymond Hatton, to John Mack Brown, a trio known as The Three Musketeers of the Old West.
But it was back to the jungle and being a bad guy for his next serial, “Call of the Savage”, which had Noah Beery Jr., as Jan the jungle boy and Miller as an unethical scientist who wants the formula as a cure for infantile paralysis that’s engraved on a steel wristband Jan wears. The serial is very enjoyable, but is just more of the same for Miller.
Universal had another Buck Jones serial, “The Roaring West” (‘35 Universal), ready for production and who else to play the main bad guy but Miller. While he was undoubtedly happy to be working, these parts must have been growing tiresome.
In “Wild West Days” (‘37 Universal) John Mack Brown has three colorful sidekicks, but Miller isn’t one of them. Instead, he’s just “Doc” Hardy, a member of big-boss Russell Simpson’s gang.
He’s the main bad guy in “Secret of Treasure Island” (‘38 Columbia) and gets to die while greedily grasping gold and jewels. But serial parts were becoming fewer and fewer.
He had gone from at least one serial a year in the very early ‘30s to one serial every couple of years by ‘39. In “Dick Tracy’s G-Men” (‘39 Republic), which closes out his serial appearances, he’s just one of master-criminal Irving Pichel’s gang. All along he’d also been working in feature films for various studios, as a character actor, bit player, or stuntman, and that continued into 1940.
Miller was only 48 when he died on March 30, 1940, just days after doing a strenuous fight scene for Gene Autry’s “Gaucho Serenade”. Hollywood had lost another historical but barely-remembered figure.